CONTRIBUTOR SPOTLIGHT: INTERVIEW WITH CHARLOTTE COVEY
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: In “what the water taught me,” we’re intrigued by how you strike a balance between soft metaphors and dark content. How did you navigate the relationship between these?
Charlotte Covey: People tell me I tend to live in capital letters and write in lowercase ones. In a way, that translates to my poetry. My speakers (and I) live large, often catastrophic lives. I have found that quieter language and softer metaphors temper out the darker, louder content. I want people to have to listen carefully. I find it is easier to tame dark content by making it beautiful. Not the events, of course, but making the metaphors softer, and therefore more manageable, helps make the content more manageable, too.
RR: “a haunting” describes a very intimate and complex relationship. What was your process of developing the character of the speaker through their voice and relationship with their loved one?
CC: I want to make it clear that my poems are not always autobiographical, and they are almost never completely autobiographical. However, this poem was written after a young man I knew intimately about two years ago. He was in recovery for drug abuse, and we had a short-lived relationship while he was in recovery. I did not find out he had died until months after the fact, which bothered me for obvious reasons as well as less obvious reasons. I kept thinking about the fact that he had died, and I hadn’t known. He was quite young, as I am, and it bothered me that I hadn’t heard about the funeral or anything. I hadn’t felt anything at his time of death. So I set out to write a poem to deal with those feelings of loss and those feelings of, in a way, guilt? Of not feeling it when he died. Of being drunk at some party on the other side of town during this momentous and devastating occasion, not knowing immediately that something in the universe had changed. He died on Halloween, which I know is the only way he’d have wanted to go.
RR: Both “what the water taught me” and “a haunting” focus on loss and trauma. How have these themes shaped your work in general?
CC: Trauma is one of my obsessions (all writers have them). How people deal with trauma, what trauma does to people, and the fascinating lengths that humans go to ignore their trauma. I write to deal with mine, and I do other things to ignore it. I don’t know exactly how loss and trauma have shaped my work simply because I feel like they are my work. Without them, my work doesn’t and wouldn’t exist.
RR: The poems are dynamic in their form as well as their content. How do you approach and play with form in your work?
CC: I wish there was a science to my forms; there isn’t, necessarily. I just felt that “what the water taught me” needed to be as dynamic as water itself—as ferocious and unpredictable and scattered and ever-moving. The spacing just felt right, and I liked that it left less white space across the horizontal page. As for “a haunting,” this poem didn’t have any movement when I first wrote it, and a long time after. It was just left-aligned tercets. But I kept feeling like the poem wasn’t finished, like there was something missing. The form lacked the haunting quality that the title and the language are trying to evoke. I settled on the moving tercets because it made me feel like the poem was sort of floating in that space between real and not real, alive and dead.
RR: Both of your pieces in this issue describe deeply personal and distressing material without becoming too graphic. What would you suggest for writers struggling with working with this type of content?
CC: Here’s the thing: some people are always going to assume every poem you write is autobiographical. As poets, where fiction and nonfiction both come into play, we have to make our peace with that, and accept that only we will know the differences between ourselves and our speakers unless we tell people directly. Here’s the other thing: you can just say what you mean, but that’s generally not nearly as complex or as interesting, and you probably won’t end up getting to the heart of what you are actually trying to say. For example, “what the water taught me” is clearly about some sort of assault. Start with what you want to say: “I was assaulted” and create a metaphor out of some aspect of it: water is fierce and ever-moving and still and silent. You can sort of let the metaphor do the work for you, and allow it to tell the truth the way you want it to be told. Then it becomes about the poem, and not about what actually happened or what story you were originally trying to tell. In my work, poems are about a particular feeling, and sometimes using long metaphors and pretty language puts enough distance between me and the subject matter that I can catch the feeling by surprise.
Charlotte Covey’s work in Issue 6.2: